Deacon’s research uncovers the
story of enslaved Catholic leader

Deacon Ned Berghausen, seen here in St. Louis Cemetery near the gravesite of Mary Narcissa Frederick, an enslaved woman who died in 1908. He will lead a “Pilgrimage of Solidarity” July 30, aimed at helping Catholics connect with the story and experience of Black Catholics. The deacon hopes the pilgrimage will open a door to reconciliation and racial solidarity. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

When Deacon Ned Berghausen leads a “Pilgrimage of Solidarity” July 30 — aimed at helping Catholics connect with the story and experience of Black Catholics — he will be making a pilgrimage of his own, he said.

The day-long pilgrimage, sponsored by St. Agnes Church’s Sister Thea Bowman Society, will focus on the life of Mary Narcissa Frederick, an enslaved woman who died in 1908. Deacon Berghausen considers Frederick to be one of the mothers of the Archdiocese of Louisville.

“She’s a powerful example for Catholics in the archdiocese and not only Black Catholics. She’s a model of holiness, perseverance and fidelity for all of us,” said Deacon Berghausen during a recent interview at St. Agnes, where he serves.

Five years ago, Deacon Berghausen discovered a will belonging to one of his ancestors, an early Catholic who settled in the area known as the Kentucky Holy Land. The document showed that his ancestors had owned slaves, he said.

“Holding that document and seeing proof of my family’s connection to that dark and terrible history felt very personal,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to process it and deal with it.”

When he was ready, Deacon Berghausen went on a journey to understand his own family’s involvement with slavery as well as the archdiocese’s, he said. As a white Catholic and a member of the clergy, he feels a responsibility to “grapple” with this history, he said.

The research that followed led him to Frederick.

“She experienced so much of the history of this city and of our local church. She’s responsible for a lot of it (the Catholic history), too,” he said.

Sacramental records he uncovered showed that Frederick acted as a sponsor for numerous baptisms of enslaved individuals, infants and adults. She also acted as a sponsor for confirmations and witnessed weddings between enslaved people.

“That’s a trusted spiritual role,” he said of the role of godparent. Deacon Berghausen noted too that the role carried an “additional responsibility” during the time of slavery. At that time, the parents of children being baptized were also entrusting godparents with the responsibility of raising their children in the event they were sold or died, he said.

The July 30 pilgrimage feels personal to him.

“I feel like I’m on a pilgrimage of my own,” he said.

The day-long event will start at Oxmoor Farms, which used to be a plantation where enslaved people worked, he said. The pilgrimage will make its way by bus to downtown Louisville. Pilgrims will then walk to several sites.

Deacon Berghausen said he didn’t set out to tell Frederick’s story. He was interested in exploring the history of slave-holding in his family and in the church, specifically Bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget. The first Bishop of Louisville owned about 25 slaves according to Deacon Berghausen’s research. When he encountered Frederick on the pages of historical and sacramental records, however, he felt a responsibility to tell her story.

“It’s important to explore Bishop Flaget’s role in endorsing slavery in our diocese but I think the history of Black Catholics needs to be told,” he said. Frederick’s story is an interesting “prism” through which to tell that story, he added.

There are many reminders of the history of slavery around the archdiocese, he said. An event such as the pilgrimage helps individuals experience them on another level, he said. They take on new meaning. He believes that entering a space where some of this history played out can change an individual, he said.

He recalled how “powerful” a moment it was to experience the installation of Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre inside the Kentucky International Convention Center — the former site of the home in which Frederick was enslaved for some five decades. On March 30, Archbishop Fabre became the archdiocese’s first African American bishop.

The Kentucky International Convention Center will be one of the stops on the pilgrimage.

Deacon Berghausen is inviting the archdiocese to go on this pilgrimage in hopes that Frederick’s story will open a way toward racial solidarity and reconciliation, he said.

His research on the life of Frederick can be found by visiting https://bit.ly/MaryNarcissaFrederick. For more information about the pilgrimage, contact Deacon Berghausen at nberghausen@stagneslouisville.org or call St. Agnes’ parish office at 451-2220.

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